World War One: Surface Fleet

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Article Highlights

Technological Developments

Changes in weapons and ships design
Naval weapons, and the ships carrying them, had advanced considerably in the years leading up to the First World War. Bigger, faster and more seaworthy destroyers and torpedo boats had entered service, and the submarine was becoming a significant danger, as shown by the sinking of three Royal Navy cruisers by the German U9 in the space of 90 minutes on 22 September 1914.

Anti-shipping mines, although a type of weapon many years old, were still a potent threat - the battleship HMS Audacious, only a year old, sank after exploding a mine on 26 October 1914. As the war continued, these, and other technologies, continued to develop as both sides tried to gain the advantage.

A photograph of the battleship HMS Audacious sinking after hitting a German mine on 27th October 1914. (RNM)

Improvements in design of many types of warship took place, with speed, firepower and protection the key areas for consideration - all needing larger and more expensive ships to achieve a better capability.

A photograph of the monitor HMS Terror, which was launched in 1915 (RNM)

HMS Audacious, for example, carried 13.5 inch guns at 21 knots on a displacement of 23,400 tons - HMS Hood, under construction in 1918, carried 15 inch guns at 31 knots on a displacement of 45,000 tons. New types of ships were called for; shore bombardment in support of the Army needed ships with big guns able to move in shallow water close to the shore - the monitor was the result. By the end of the war monitors carrying 15 inch guns had been built.

As the capability of submarines to operate further from their bases grew, the need to defend the vital shipping links to and from the island nation of Great Britain became more and more important.

Initially cargo ships, passenger liners and supply ships sailed independently; not until the numbers of ships lost to attack by U-Boats, the German submarines, had reached such a level that the country was in danger of starvation did the Admiralty introduce a system of convoys, escorted by destroyers and other anti-submarine vessels.

Initially these had no means of detecting a submerged submarine, relying on a sharp-eyed lookout spotting a periscope as the enemy commander searched for a target, and limited types of weapons available to attack a submarine if found - the only options were gunfire or ramming the submarine on, or near, the surface. By the end of the war, Asdic (now know as Sonar) had been developed, and was able to detect a submarine underwater (at fairly short distances). The depth charge, an explosive canister able to be dropped and detonate at depths up to 300 feet, was available from 1916 onwards.

Dazzle camouflage
Camouflage, as a concept, had two aspects. The ability to hide a ship or other object, or at least to reduce the distance at which an observer could detect it, was the most obvious requirement, but was difficult to achieve at sea. A ship could be painted to try and hide in the North Sea on a misty day would stand out clearly in bright sunlight, and vice versa.

The aircraft carrier HMS Argus during World War One, painted with dazzle camouflage.

Another approach was to attempt to fool the observer into thinking that a ship was heading in a different direction to its real course, or that it was further or nearer than its real distance, or that it was going faster than its actual speed (for example by painting a false bow-wave on the ship).

The most extreme form of this deception was known as Dazzle Camouflage - a series of angular panels in widely contrasting colours painted on ships to give a false impression of heading, size, shape and size of ship. This approach was developed by the well-known artist Norman Wilkinson (1878 -1971). A further example of camouflage was the conversion of several merchant ships to look like battleships, in order to mislead the enemy into believing that the British Grand Fleet was larger than it actually was.


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